Why “Just Saying No” To Violence Against Women Is Harder Than We Like To Think
It's easy to say you're against domestic violence. But what about when it's someone you know?
This article deals with sexual violence and assault.
Over the last two years, Australia has begun to confront those aspects of its character that contribute to the epidemic of violence against women. Pressed by advocates like Rosie Batty, politicians, media outlets and the public have kept domestic violence at the forefront of the nation’s consciousness and done much to reduce the historic stigma and silence on the issue.
But there’s a hole in the national conversation around domestic violence, particularly in regards to men who want to be part of the solution, while not necessarily recognising ways in which they may be part of the problem. At the moment, individual ‘action’ for men consists of broadly positive, impersonal statements or sentiments — it might involve signing a petition, taking a White Ribbon pledge, posting a selfie or going to an anti-domestic violence round of the cricket or footy.
Putting my #whiteribbon promise on the tree at Woollahra Council. End violence against and disrespect toward women pic.twitter.com/ZAqtzdo1
— Malcolm Turnbull (@TurnbullMalcolm) November 22, 2012
These actions, while well-intentioned, miss an extremely important point that many men don’t consider. The biggest and most immediate priority for men who say they’re against domestic and sexual violence is to recognise that men they know and care about are entirely capable of being harassers and abusers, and that they have an obligation to proactively and vigorously confront those men — friends, family members, coworkers — on their behaviour.
That sounds easy, but it’s not. “Saying no to violence against women” is easy when the guy doing it is some vague, hypothetical Other in your head, or a drunken yob who fits your preconceptions of what a violent man looks like.
But when you hear on the grapevine that a friend of yours creeps on women at parties, or that the girlfriend he’s always fighting with has bruises, and you ignore it or make excuses like “but he’s a really good guy,” you are not being neutral or “staying out of it”.
Because other men in your circle are doing it too — defending him, saying “it’s complicated”, grimacing slightly before shrugging it off. It’s the textbook example of how decent, regular people come to be supporters and protectors of abuse. Individual silences that coalesce into a larger unspoken understanding — a conspiracy of collective inaction that acts as a protective buffer around a man’s violent, criminal behaviour. That is not neutral. That is aiding and abetting.
As recounted late last year by Brydie-Lee Kennedy for SBS Comedy and Kara Schlegl for The Saturday Paper, a real-life example of this phenomenon recently played out in Sydney’s comedy community. A successful young comedian, who is not named in either article, was known to his friends and colleagues as being a serial abuser of women, especially of Kennedy, his one-time partner. Those friends and colleagues — all fellow up-and-coming comedians, self-styled ‘aware’ and ‘progressive’ young men who said all the right things — ignored what was clearly going on in front of them, choosing instead to isolate, belittle and ignore the women their friend abused. Even when the situation came to light in Kennedy’s piece, many refused to countenance the possibility that their friend was an abuser. Read those two articles for a better picture than I can provide here.
More personally, there are women in my own life who have experienced this dynamic first-hand — and men who’ve reinforced it. I have friends who’ve been in abusive relationships, only to be disbelieved and shunned when they spoke up. I’ve known men who I admired and respected make excuses for their violent friends. I’ve seen men known to have done nauseating things treated better by their peers than the women they mistreated. It’s frightening how easily we can become complicit in monstrous things, and be corrupted by them.
Clearly this phenomenon of men talking a big game about opposing domestic violence while simultaneously wearing blinkers to instances of it in their own lives is much more entrenched and pervasive than we would like to think. The flipside, and the opportunity, is that collective silence relies on the continuing participation of everyone involved. Once someone decides to actively and forcefully confront that silence, and the people at the heart of it, the buffer is cracked. The first domino falls. Conspiracies of silence are much weaker than they appear.
Being that person will not feel good. It’ll mean you lose friendships. It’ll mean conflict and pain with, and among, people you care about. Worse, it’ll mean admitting that for a while, you let your love and friendship with someone blind you to the fact of their abuse.
But if we’re genuinely serious about calling out violence against women, we need to recognise that we are signing up for something difficult. Something that involves unpleasantness, inconvenience, discomfort. Sacrifice.
That’s the choice men have to make, fully aware of what it entails. Consciously discarding the luxury of ignoring what does not affect you is much harder than it sounds, and carries consequences that will have serious reverberations in your own life.
That is the price of entry. You don’t get to claim the kudos of being “one of the good ones” while shirking the burdens that come with it — burdens that women who speak out against abusers bear unaided and alone, with none of the self-congratulatory back-slapping men are so often eager to give themselves for doing substantially less than the bare minimum.
Talking about it doesn’t involve saying “domestic violence is bad!” and basking in the applause. It involves confronting the people, policies and institutions that perpetuate it, and dealing with the backlash.
This has all been said by countless women countless times, and is usually met with indifference, dismissal or hostility. That makes the business of being an active male opponent of violence against women both more powerful and more complex. The brutal and sad reality is that, as a man, people – especially other men – are more likely to pay attention when you talk about this stuff than when women do, especially at an interpersonal level.
At the same time, that dynamic is part of the problem, and speaking over women relating their own experiences or those of their peers can hinder more than it helps. Instead, lend your strength to them. If you’re not sure how you can help someone, ask them, and listen to their response. Defend and support women who speak out – in conversations, in comments sections, and in private. You can’t erase or cancel out your privilege, but you can use it in positive ways.
Most men have good intentions when they say “I oppose violence against women”. But on their own, good intentions are vastly overrated. When they’re not accompanied by defined and ongoing efforts to turn that sentiment into concrete action, good intentions have a nasty habit of going quiet when the rubber hits the road.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.
Men can access anonymous confidential telephone counselling to help to stop using violent and controlling behaviour through the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491.
Feature image via White Ribbon.